PROM 11: A Late Night Stockhausen Prom

United Kingdom PROM 11: Stockhausen Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore. Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection).

Prom 11 CR BBC Chris  Christodoulou_
Prom 11 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou_

Stockhausen Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56)
Mittwoch aus “Licht” – Welt-Parlament (1995), London Première

The juxtaposition of one of Stockhausen’s early works (now a classic of electronic music) with the London première of the “Welt-Parlament” scene from Mittwoch was a fine one. Gesang remains the masterpiece it always was, undimmed by time, perhaps because the challenges that early electronic music presented acted as a spur to the composer’s creativity rather than a hindrance. “Welt-Parlament” reveals the consistency of his language over time, but here expanded to issues of immense importance – an opera cycle whose importance is surely yet to be grasped.

Where Stockhausen once sat, an overlord at a mixing desk, now sits Kathinka Pasveer, one of Stockhausen’s inner circle and his muse. She presided over Gesang, which took on a new meaning in the vast acoustic of the Albert Hall. I have heard it in a number of spaces – it really didn’t work very well in the Barbican, for example – and this is surely the most fitting. Stockhausen spoke many times of the importance of spatial elements in his music, of his ambition to be able to take a sound and manipulate it in space with such precision that he could pinpoint it over the head of any given member of the audience. Here, the sound-objects whizzed around the Albert Hall so effectively, playing a major part in the piece’s success. The song in question – the Song of Praise of the Three Youths from the Book of Daniel – was recorded in Cologne Cathedral by one of the choristers there before being segmented and used as sources for the composition. Its fantastical journey formed the perfect companion to the late “Welt-Parlament”. It was good that the piece was heard in near-silence from the audience, in contrast to the Prom earlier that evening (review).

It was getting on for a year ago that the Birmingham Opera Company staged Mittwoch, the sixth of the Licht operas. Inevitably, one wishes in vain for a complete Proms performance, but this was an unforgettable taster. This is the complete first scene (it ends with a promise of the second scene, ironically; and cruelly, in this context), and is preceded in performance, though not here, by “Mittwochs- Gruss”, which uses electronic music from the opera’s fourth scene, “Michaelion” (Michaelion in the galactic headquarters of the “Galaxy Operators” – it is this scene that includes the infamous camels). Wednesday’s colour is yellow, and a band of yellow light appeared behind the stage. The chorus processes in – dressed in clothing which seemed, to me at least, to be indicative of the 1950’s, but then again I know as much about clothes as I do about the music of Beyoncé – and settles itself on either side of its President, Ben Thappa. The conductor, Jeffrey Skidmore, was situated underneath him.

Prom 11 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou
Prom 11 CR BBC Chris Christodoulou

The scene is a gathering of the World Parliament high above the clouds in a skyscraper. Each member of the chorus carries a metronome, all of which are set to different tempos. The conductor uses a tubular bell, or a gavel, to initiate change, Invented language is paramount here – invented by Stockhausen, of course – but some passages make themselves known in English. The theme of the parliament’s debate is Love. The choir uses extended techniques – so, not just sung sounds but clicks – tongue and finger – and a variety of what could broadly be called “unvoiced” sounds. Towards the end, a Jobsworth caretaker interrupts – here, he entered through a door directly opposite the stage – and thus at the other side of the hall, shouting “Hello, hello”- and announces that the President’s car is about to be towed (licence number “MEV Mittwoch 1996”). His statement is greeted by hisses – or are they whispers? – from the chorus, and the coloratura soprano takes over the President’s chair before the music fades out to the sounds of the chorus leaving the stage. The solo soprano’s sections are a cross between the Queen of the Night, a transmogrified Bellini coloratura soprano and a human shard of electronica – one could easily imagine her voice fitting in well into Gesang.

Again, the use of amplification greatly added to the experience. The prevailing impression is of lyricism, highly appropriate to the scene’s central idea of love, of course. The performance standard was exceptional, born of clear familiarity with this complex music. The effect was unutterably moving, and completely unforgettable. Listen to the cheers of delight from the audience at the end on the broadcast – surely there is space for a complete performance in the future at the Proms?. It seems churlish to marginalise genius of this magnitude to a late night Prom.

Colin Clarke